The Golem of Orangeburg
Adam Judah Krasnoff
Halfway along the drive from Charleston to Orangeburg, Jed stopped in the parking lot of a defunct Esso for a piss. He’d walked past the rows of broken pumps and behind the sunken mini-mart—which must once have peddled cartons of Lucky Strikes and yardsticks of beef jerky—and was still holding his penis in his left hand when he looked up to see a fox perched on a hickory stump. Jed jumped back and covered himself with both hands. He rebuttoned his pants and wiped his palms on his thighs.
The drive took ninety minutes on a two-lane state road bisecting fields of tobacco, cotton, peanuts, and corn, each plot separated from the next by a barn, a house, a paved driveway, and a stand of trees that momentarily swallowed the car in shade before the land opened up to reveal farmland on either side once more. Certain fields lay brittle and empty, the doors to their barns peeled away. Then came the towns, here bustling and there abandoned, where hirsute men lazed on curbs chewing whole-leaf tobacco, where chess pies softened on countertops, and where silverfish clambered from the sinks of foreclosed diners.
Windows open, Jed sang:
Georgie Buck is dead
The last thing he said,
‘Don’t put no shortnin’ in my bread.’
On the outskirts of Orangeburg, where SC-178 meets 21, Jed stopped for lunch in a meat-and-three cafeteria, where he ate pulled pork, yams, corn pudding, collard greens with ham hocks, and an Arnold Palmer. He peed again. Alone in the driver’s seat, he took out his cellphone and called the same number five times. There was no answer.
He drove on, into the heart of Orangeburg. He passed a China Express, a barbershop, the Orangeburg Cigar Palace, city hall, and a Palmetto Inn & Suites. He took a left turn on Glover Street and a right on Middleton. He passed the Faith Tabernacle Deliverance Temple and a day-care center, the Highway Patrol headquarters and a Bojangle’s.
At 3:13 in the afternoon, Jed texted me a photo of an abandoned office park somewhere in the vicinity of Bowman. To explore, he clarified.
Four days later, his body was culled from the Edisto River. According to police reports, his shirtsleeves were rolled up three times and his left shoelace was undone. Marks on the neck suggested strangulation by a rope or coil. He was still wearing his backpack, inside which was found a notebook, its contents irreparably obscured, an ounce of powdered MDMA, and two red bricks, presumably to weigh the body down. In his wallet was seven dollars, a white cowrie, and a folded-up photo labeled “Rimbaud,” though I later learned it was a young Valéry.
“Our trouble is finding a minyan,” said Mulualem. “Kol Nidrei, of course, and Rosh Hashanah mornings. But Sanbat, week in and out we’ve nobody. The ones who do come can hardly drive themselves.”
“Are you a rabbi?” I asked.
“No, strictly speaking,” replied Mulualem. “It’s my job to lead services. The congregation chose me. It’s my voice they like, perhaps.”
“Who are they—the congregants, I mean?”
“I’m the only one who lives here in Orangeburg. The others, the committed ones, travel here Friday and Saturday. They come from all over the Pee Dee, and from the upstate. Ashkenazim, all but me. Seven, eight of them, three couples and a widow.”
Mulualem smiled. I had no idea of his age—the years had spread evenly over his face, he possessed an even gait and had a smooth, transparent voice.
“Our family descended from the Aksumites, from Beta Israel. I’m a Tigrayan by birth. We left in the eighties, my parents and I, when the other Jews were emigrating to Israel. We traveled to Sudan, then through Chad, and we just kept going east. My father labored all his life. He took us to Chicago, to Little Rock, to Orangeburg. Every day, he read to us from the Orit. I expect he’s reciting verses even now.”
“But the synagogue is yours. Your father never—”
“I belong to the mesgid; it isn’t mine. I came to worship, I chanted along with everyone else. They liked to hear my voice. Now we’re without a rabbi, and I lead.”
We sat on a bench in Adden Street Park. I had a notebook open on my lap, but I hadn’t written anything.
“Where do you come from?” Mulualem asked.
“Charleston,” I said. “I’m Ashkenazi, like the rest.”
He nodded. “Why come to Orangeburg?”
“I’m looking for some information. I’m writing a story about a friend. He came here just before he died. He was killed, that is. They found his body here.”
“You’re a writer?” Mulualem asked.
“Not exactly. I want to know where he went, what he saw, anything I can find.”
“Is it true, the story of your friend?”
“It’s incomplete, it’s missing pieces. It’s weightless, for now. I couldn’t figure how to go on, so I came here. I tried writing from his perspective, but it’s no use, it’s pulp. So I write as an omniscient, laying out the facts, only I don’t have the facts.”
“You’re here for detective work, then.”
“It’s a blind search. The case has been closed. Two men confessed; one was killed, and nobody knows where the other ended up.”
“Is he a Jew, your friend?”
“He was, yes.”
“Would you like to walk with me?” Mulualem asked. “I’ll show you the Hebrew Cemetery, where my parents are buried.”
We stood together and made our way out of the park. A school bus trundling down Summers Avenue stopped to disgorge a group of elementary schoolers. We crossed Summers and continued down Webster, past First Presbyterian Church.
“Down that way,” said Mulualem, pointing to his right, “is our temple. Another three blocks and you’re on Russell, near where the All Star Bowling was. That was all I knew of Orangeburg when we moved down here. The faces of those three boys printed in the Clarion-Ledger. You wouldn’t believe my mother’s fright.”
The houses on either side of us were white and flat. In one yard, a squirrel was clinging to a garden gnome.
“When did you start leading the congregation?” I asked.
“It’s been three years,” said Mulualem. “Our rabbi moved on. Then the numbers began to dwindle. Some found other congregations, some died.”
“And you’ll go on there?”
“So far as I wish. We don’t own the space, and the rent’s covered by donations. One day it won’t be ours.”
Mulualem put a hand on my shoulder. “Look, my friend. Here we are.”
Ahead of us was a wrought-iron gate leading into a small burial ground overgrown with ryegrass and dandelion. The cemetery was protected by a low wall of sandstone. I passed several crooked, pocked headstones. Some were unreadable, and others—Abrams, I read on one, died 1946, ‘On the violin he played many a number.’ Louis, son of H. Link, ‘May his soul reside in Zion.’ Blumberg, born 1883 in Kanda, Russia, died 1930 in Dillon, South Carolina.
“Here,” said Mulualem.
He was a few paces ahead of me, pointing to two dark stones nestled in a furrow in the earth where patches of fescue had sprouted. I joined him. Betheha and Tsegaye Eyali, died 2014.
“Where did your family come from?” asked Mulualem.
“Ukraine,” I said, “on my father’s side.”
“And your friend’s family?”
“I’m not certain. Maybe they were Sephardic. I can’t remember if he ever mentioned it.”
“Why was he killed?”
“I don’t know if there’s a reason. They found drugs on him. He sold drugs, it’s true. But I don’t know why they decided he had to die when he did.”
“But you believe that someone decided?”
“I’ve no idea where to turn,” I said. “It’s become something more than a creative exercise for me. I want to follow his path, an invisible path.”
“Now you’re talking about writing,” said Mulualem.
“I think it started as a memorial of sorts. Then it became about actualization, about telling as much as could be told. Now it’s passed into true mystery. Everything seems pertinent and nothing ever opens.”
“Is it wise?”
“I can’t say. It’s like I’m reading a novel composed only of first sentences. ‘The funny thing about being seventeen is that for every nasty thing that happens three funny ones do, too.’ ‘Jed Chinitz liked raspberries in his ice cream.’ ‘Halfway along the drive to Orangeburg…’”
“How does it begin, then?” asked Mulualem.
“I’ve got this idea,” I said, “that it starts with a fox. My friend sees a fox in the woods when he stops to pee. It’s just one second, but in my head it matters.”
Mulualem sat on the path. I leaned down to join him.
“There’s a story in the Talmud,” he said. “The fox and the fishes. The tale goes like this: in Rome, Jews were forbidden from studying Torah. Even so, Rabbi Akiva refused to stop leading worship in public. In defiance, Akiva offered a parable:
To what can this be compared? It is like a fox walking along a riverbank when he sees fish gathering and fleeing from place to place. The fox said to them: From what are you fleeing? They said to him: We are fleeing from the nets that people cast upon us. He said to them: Do you wish to come up onto dry land, and we will reside together just as my ancestors resided with your ancestors? The fish said to him: You are the one of whom they say, “he is the cleverest of animals?” You are not clever; you are a fool. If we are afraid in the water, our natural habitat which gives us life, then in a habitat that causes our death, all the more so. So too, we Jews, now that we sit and engage in Torah study, about which it is written: “For that is your life, and the length of your days,” we fear the empire to this extent; if we proceed to sit idle from its study, as its abandonment is the habitat that causes our death, all the more so will we fear the empire.
“What you make of it is another matter,” continued Mulualem.
The ground beneath me was hard. Across Warren Street, a group of teenage boys played basketball together, grunting and shouting in what seemed now to be frustration and then elation. The breeze nodded the grasses against the Eyali graves.
Mulualem seemed to know I wanted him to go on speaking.
“One day they’ll take the building from us, it’s no secret. The rents are going up everywhere, as far as I can tell. Then I’ll be Falasha, landless, a wanderer. I don’t dread it, it would be silly to dread a thing like that. I’d only drive myself mad.”
“It doesn’t make you angry?”
“Does it make you angry to think of your friend?”
“Of course—and then a little tired.”
“My anger’s faded somewhat,” said Mulualem. “I’ve lived; I’ve seen Addis Ababa, Khartoum, N’djamena, Chicago, New York, St. Louis; I’ve buried both my parents. What good is anger? I went a long time dreaming I’d conjure up a golem to rescue us. There will always be floods, famines. We’ll go on apiece; later on we’ll stop.”
Charleston, October the fifth.
Did I go far enough? Was it enough when I got there?
Yom Kippur morning the little ladies come tumbling in their purple cloches and lace frocks, rouge blotches shining on their cheeks. Repent now, meyne lobeysim, confess now! In walks concave Marty Rosenberg, forehead iridescent with sweat, and behind him labors Irving Greenblatt, all drooping flesh and burst buttons, he’ll need a pew to himself.
The end of Carolinian summer is a strange spectacle. (Yes, here, October, its former half, is a summer month.) Evenings a great hum rises from the chrysanthemums. The land expects—what, some respite soon? Then the rain forgives, misty-warm and wet. The pavement turns pale green with yaupon leaves. You flick your tongue out as you walk.
Spent the week reviewing draft notes. What can be told? Listen to this:
Jed’s father found work as a muralist, painting Percherons on carriage houses. Evenings he led ghost tours in the historical quarter at extortionate rates. That summer, Jed confided in me, he’d taken as a lover a Colombian émigré called Natalia, a baker whose pandebono overflowed the counters in his grim condo. Slouched together in front of the TV, we listened to their love cries straining from under the door to his bedroom. Later, sheepish, they emerged, and we’d play craps, or listen to his father sing ‘Pearl of the Quarter,’ or sit with bated breath as Natalia told us stories about Medellín, the Eternal Spring, the great Independiente teams of old, and her family, her arm stuck around Jed’s shoulder all the while and a cigarette in her other hand.
True, Jed’s father painted murals. As for Natalia—I remember a woman’s moans, yes, and two half-empty glasses of warm beer on his kitchen table.
Online this afternoon I come across an article about a Clydesdale called Ervin, a carriage horse, which collapsed in the center of Market Street this August, overwhelmed by heat. Negotiations about the construction of a floodwall around the harbor are underway.
At Shacharit, the sermon touched on the usual points—sickness, death, regret, repentance, forgiveness, renewal. Room was even made for brief ruminations on Leonard Cohen, tea and oranges.
Continuing is the most difficult part, of course. I’ve no idea what to do with Mulualem’s advice, if you can call it that. In fact my time with him, my time in Orangeburg, strikes me as the most frightening and untoward part of this entire process. Our encounter—it can’t have lasted more than a half-hour—was as natural as it was arbitrary, as pregnant for me as it may have been barren for him. The perfect narrative exegesis? Recalling our conversation, it’s hard to parse whether he spoke in platitudes or crystalline wisdoms.
Whatever the case, he succeeded in disarming me. I’d expected little of him; my curiosity had been piqued upon reading his name on the congregation’s website, so unusual in that sea of Ashkenazic -bergs, -steins, and -baums. I was surprised Mulualem chose to respond to my email—innocuous enough, constructed of simple questions about his and the synagogue’s backgrounds—at all, let alone agree to my request for a short meeting when I visited Orangeburg. Maybe it was the spirit of the Days of Awe which moved him, I don’t know.
Since Jed’s death, the name Orangeburg had taken on a cataclysmic, black-purple edge, but the city itself, which I’d passed countless times on the road upstate without thinking twice, was inviting in the way only certain mediocre Southern towns can be, populated by children at play, old women pushing grocery carts down warped sidewalks, and stray mutts barking up the walls of forlorn municipal buildings. (If that sounds like ugliness, it is and isn’t, and it’s only warm to those for whom the details were the signposts and stations of home.)
I’d worried Mulualem would be wary of my intentions, but it was his penetrating lucidity which I now hold as the definitive quality of our meeting. It was not until days later that the poignant effect of the visit to his parents’ headstones took hold on me, but once it did I retreated to my bedroom, sat with my papers fanned around me, and wept. Even the hand he placed on my shoulder as we entered Orangeburg’s neglected Hebrew Cemetery resonates in my memory as the essence of tact. It wasn’t hard to see why the congregants had seen a leader in him, as he said to me, with frightening directness: Now you’re talking about writing?
After Mulualem and I parted ways, I drove in circles, taking in as many details of central Orangeburg as I could, jotting down the names of restaurants, churches, public buildings. Later on I had lunch in a meat-and-three cafeteria, where I ate pulled pork, yams, corn pudding, collard greens with ham hocks, and an Arnold Palmer.
This fast has made me hungry.
All attempts at physical description of Jed have come off ersatz, though they’ll always look that way to me. Jed was short one day and tall the next, blonde, brown-haired, ginger, and bald, capable of receiving and doling out punches or hugs with equal vigor, long in the face in the morning and of a capacious laugher at night, pervert to some and celibate to others, teetotaler in one town and wino in the next, violent with dogs and tender with cats, half-Sephardi and half-French, known to carry knives, acorns, Dramamine, love-notes, gloves, golf pencils, used Kleenexes, seashells. In lieu of a portrait, I offer three lines of “Georgie Buck.”
After Jed’s memorial, we spoke of the future. Would he have turned poet, peasant, or pedant? Isn’t there any paprika in these deviled eggs?
I did not visit the banks of the Edisto, which I am sure smelled of pluff mud and where, in the marsh grass, a heron would not have alighted.
To the Orangeburgers, I remain deferent. When the power lines in their town are knocked down by the first gales of hurricane season, no one comes to pick them up. On Russell Street, on Broughton, Fischer, Henley, Amelia, Maple, and Windsor, people clamber over the fallen steel cords, lift their toddlers from one side of the felled poles to the other. The noise of traffic begins early despite the commotion. School buses pause so that discerning citizens can move the debris out of the way. In Memorial Plaza, in Adden Street Park, in the center of the Pioneer Graveyard, they can be heard repeating: this is not a town, we do not live here. Still, the work is divided evenly. The carpenters close their shops, the firefighters change their hoses for pickaxes and rakes, and even the police try their hand at a day’s labor.
As for me, tonight is my sole concern. The cold is approaching, and I have shut my windows. The jackals can’t go on howling all night, can they?
Adam Judah Krasnoff
"The story was written around Yom Kippur in 2022 and is both a memorial for a friend and a reflection on a very—to my mind—Jewish confusion about the proper expression of spiritual obligations and how to reconcile one’s nonparticipation in a community one has left behind."